Drug reformists are optimistic that Australia is following in the footsteps European countries and moving towards the use of pill testing at music festivals – but the NSW Premier has blatantly refused to sanction the harm minimisation measure in our state.
Drug expert Dr David Caldicott has said that several senior politicians and police officers have expressed support for pill testing in an effort to reduce the number of deaths and hospitalisations caused by the consumption of drugs which contain deadly fillers and unusually high purity levels, especially when accompanied by the practice of ‘loading up’ – which is where users take all their drugs at once to avoid police detection.
Caldicott foreshadows pill testing trials during this year’s festival season, stating “We continue to progress, we’ve got the funding”. Although he would not disclose the jurisdictions he hopes will be participating, he acknowledges that NSW maintains its opposition.
Dangers of Zero Tolerance
The dangers of the current approach are highlighted by a number of tragic deaths at music festivals, including 17-year-old Gemma Thoms who died after ‘loading up’ on ecstasy pills before the Big Day Out festival. A friend who accompanied her to the event, Cassandra Southern, said Gemma had swallowed all of her pills in a last-minute attempt to evade sniffer dogs at the entrance to the festival.
Victorian teenager James Munro, also tragically died after taking three pills at the Defqon.1 rave festival when he saw police and panicked.
And just weeks ago, two teenagers collapsed after using drugs at Groovin’ the Moo festival in Maitland. In the same weekend, two others were hospitalised for suspected drug overdoses at the Midnight Mafia dance party in Sydney.
Drug reform experts believe future tragedies can be avoided if Australia adopts harm minimisation strategies which have been remarkably successful in European countries.
In the Netherlands – the home of EDM and rave culture – the government has accepted that ecstasy use is rife, focusing on harm minimisation instead of detection and prosecution.
In that country, many rave parties and music festivals are frequented by on-site pill testing services, which allow users to screen the contents of their drugs for dangerous substances and unusually high purity levels.
Test results are returned within 30 minutes, allowing users to quickly determine whether the pills are safe, and to make informed decisions about whether to take the drugs and, if so, how much.
As Dr Caldicott notes, “If the result of a test on a pill is something other than what they thought it would be, [drug users] frequently elect to abandon taking that pill. And we have the opportunity to let them know and interface with them about how they can moderate their behaviour’.
Police still patrol the European festivals, but take a passive approach – allowing users to have their pills tested without fear of arrest. The approach also reduces the likelihood of ‘loading up’.
New South Wales
Despite the potential to save lives, the NSW government has made it clear that it “does not support pill testing”, saying its “position has not changed” despite the Groovin’ the Moo and Midnight Mafia hospitalisations.
It will instead continue to focus on detection and prosecution through the police sniffer dog program, despite the approach being highly inaccurate, ineffective and expensive and conducive to dangerous behaviour.
Director of harm reduction group Unharm, Will Tregoning, says sniffer dogs have little deterrence effect, a view supported by the NSW Ombudsman who conducted a comprehensive study into the effectiveness and legality of sniffer dog use in NSW.
A recent survey found that only 10% drug users reported that the presence of sniffer dogs would make them consider changing their drug use, while the number who said they would abstain was even less. Yet 30% said they would take all of their drugs at once if they saw a sniffer dog approaching.
Move to Ban Sniffer Dogs
Greens MP for Newtown, Jenny Leong, has introduced a bill into NSW Parliament that would make it unlawful to use sniffer dogs without a warrant. “In NSW, the use of sniffer dogs by police on public transport, at festivals and in bars is not about effective drug control – it’s about police intimidation and harassment,” Leong said.
However, with a government loath to change its current approach, it is unlikely the bill will be passed in parliament, and given its attitude towards harm minimisation, it is likely more young people will unnecessarily lose their lives by ingesting untested substances and loading up.